With the increased emphasis on testing in the last decade, play has become a 4-letter word in more ways than one to some in the education field. But are there benefits of learning through play? We have seen time for play decrease in the elementary schools. Is this a disservice to students, as a right of childhood and the loss of a beneficial way to learn?
Learning through play has numerous benefits for children of all ages and abilities. Children gain physical, social, language, and cognitive benefits from play. Free play and guided play are both beneficial and should be incorporated into children’s schedules.
From infancy, children begin to explore their environment. The first time a child grasps a rattle and shakes it on his own, and then shows surprise and delight at the sound he has created, is a joyous milestone for many parents. He is learning cause and effect. (I shake the rattle; I make noise.) From the start, children begin their journey as lifelong learners as they learn about their world from play.
Benefits of Learning Through Play
What exactly is play? Play is usually characterized as spontaneous, enjoyable, and flexible. Children often participate in play in early childhood for no other reason but to amuse themselves; it is intrinsically motivated. While this free play happens naturally, guided play is also important and beneficial. Guided play involves a specific early learning goal and an adult who may provide the play’s parameters to help reach that objective.
We most often see play in early childhood performed by young children that are two to six years old. As this is the prime age for children to begin their formal education, we must recognize the importance of play based learning in the educational setting and the many benefits.
Physical Benefits of Play
Play is vital for a child’s physical development as it helps small children develop their fine and gross motor skills. Younger children can develop important skills like running, jumping, and throwing through play while improving strength and endurance. Fine motor skills, like holding and using a utensil correctly, can be learned through imaginative play.
Not only does play in early childhood help develop motor skills, but it can physically help young children by keeping them fit and active while providing a positive outlet to release stress. Research shows that physical play can also help students focus better on educational tasks and learn better.
And many parents don’t need formal research to tell them what they already know, that their children are better behaved and in a better mood when they have time to burn some pent-up energy through physical play.
Social Benefits of Play
When playing with others, children receive numerous social benefits. Play can teach the concepts of sharing, compromise, and conflict resolution. It can help to build relationships between peers, as well as with parents and caregivers through guided play.
Before they learn how to speak, children can express their emotions through their play, helping adults understand how they feel. Play in early childhood can be so valuable in this way that we often see therapists use this process to help children work through conflict.
Play can also help children to become confident and build positive self-esteem. As they learn new concepts through their play and begin to use these new skills, their sense of independence and pride is developed.
Children will alternatively take the role of leader when playing with peers, guiding the play, and of a follower. Both roles help to develop an understanding of how to behave in different social situations.
Language Benefits of Play
Through play in early childhood, children expand their speech and language skills. When playing alone, children often narrate what they are doing, learning how to use words to express their actions. Access to materials such as crayons, markers, paper, books, and plastic letters can also help develop literacy skills.
When playing with others, children develop their communication skills by speaking about their actions and listening to their peers. In an educational setting, teachers can also use guided play to model proper conversation techniques, as well as organically teach new vocabulary in a meaningful way.
Cognitive Benefits of Play
With a focus on standardized testing, play has fallen to the wayside in many classrooms. However, children benefit more than just physically, socially, and linguistically from playing. They develop cognitively as well. This can be in broad, general ways, but also in concrete ways for specific learning objectives.
Through play, children learn and develop in the key areas of problem solving, creativity and imagination, understanding cause and effect, and critical thinking. These play based learning activities are crucial areas that will help them do will in tangible ways in other core areas of their education.
Guided play can also be used by educators to teach more concrete lessons. For example, playing with blocks can teach children colors, shapes, and numbers. Imaginative play can be used to teach the different parts of a story. The ways to use play as a method of teaching are only limited by the imagination of the educator.
When it comes to cognitive skills and play based learning programs, early learning is always recommended. It might seem surprising, but children learn cognitive skills best through play.
Play And Older Kids
While word play is often used to describe the activity of younger children, it is also beneficial to older students. Teachers can use games, role-play, and “toys” to motivate and teach middle-school and high-school aged children, as well.
In our constantly evolving digital era, another avenue of play that can be beneficial to children is that of video and computer games. Organized sports are another great opportunity for children to learn and develop socially and physically through play.
Play For Children Of All Abilities
Play can help young children of all abilities to learn, but it can be of even greater importance to children with special needs such as Autism, ADHD, or children with other learning difficulties. While a standard class of direct instruction may not be a great fit for all kids, all kids can use play to learn.
For parents and families who would like extra support, occupational therapists can help develop strategies for children to manage daily functional activities such as dressing, toileting, eating, play and social skills, school skills, and fine and gross motor skills.
How To Get The Most Out of Play
Spontaneous and unguided free play is beneficial to children and an integral part of childhood. Time should be provided both at home and at school to allow the child an opportunity to lead the way in deciding how to play. However, guided play is also valuable when teaching new skills and concepts. There are many ways you can help your child or student to benefit more fully from play:
- Lead physical games and provide exercise or playground equipment to develop gross motor skills
- Provide blocks, eating utensils, and writing utensils to develop fine motor skills
- Provide activities such as matching games and puzzles to develop cognitive skills
- Provide literacy materials such as books, paper, and letters to develop language skills
- Guide imaginative play and role-play by suggesting themes and providing props to develop social skills
From the first time they pick up a toy at a few months old, to the detailed and complex game of make-believe of a six-year-old, to the RPG video game of a high-schooler, play provides children with many opportunities to learn and develop. Children learn best through play.
A simple role-played game of school can provide physical benefits (running a race during lunchtime), social benefits (learning how to compromise when two children want to be the “teacher”), language benefits (listening and responding to the questions of the “teacher”), and cognitive benefits (determining how to best “teach” the day’s objective of counting to ten).
Many educators are so worried about the quantifiable results of testing that they can forget about what may be the best teaching technique of all: allowing children to play, both on their own and with guidance.
Parents can be tempted to overwhelm their children with “school” at home, even for pre-school aged children. Let your children be children. Let them play. The best thing you can do is to create play based learning environments for them. Young children learn and develop in more ways than you know.